Peter Bart, the long-serving studio executive turned prominent media industry journalist, recently wrote a column in Variety wondering where all the manners have gone:
The irony of calling out the entertainment community on bad behavior is not lost. If you have spent any time at all in film, television, radio, theater, advertising, or any related endeavor, you have your own war stories to share. You have been humiliated, ignored, dissed, or berated at every level of your ladder climb from desk clerk to corner office. If you are not currently experiencing the abuse to your face, you are fully aware it is happening behind your back. This of course is in no way limited to showbiz—the rest of the business world including technology has its own flavors of belittling, it’s just a little more celebrated in Hollywood as norm. If you have never had the pleasure to do jumping jacks on this playground, just catch a few reruns this summer of the hit TV show Smash.
Although Bart largely ties the exponential run-up in the rude factor to gadget proliferation, the 24/7 expectation of real-time response, and the death knell of “nuanced conversation” in the creative process, I wonder how many of us are paying attention to our own slides into the primordial. The question is not are we targets of rudeness, the answer to that is as obvious as it is ubiquitous—and I don’t think it has all that much to do with texting and youth, especially if you remember the pre-politically correct workplace before Wang when an airborne stapler headed for your cranium often had to be ducked. The question I am more apt to ponder is how we let ourselves get seduced to the other side, becoming a violator when we know that’s not something we want to be.
We can still be hard-charging, we can still be Type A, but there is no mandate for acclaim that requires sloppy people skills. Presuming there is a roof over your head and ample food available to you on revolving credit, ask yourself in the long run what matters more: accomplishing a task however trivial, or building relationships that strengthen your standing? Certainly in the throes of immediacy a terse email might be released now and again, but what about the basics we were taught as children about The Golden Rule, lessons we now ostensibly pass along to subsequent generations who are as glued to their handhelds as we are?
Is it really that hard to save a viciously nasty email in your drafts folder and wait until morning before you elect to hit the send button?
Can you really feel good about telling someone you’ll call them tomorrow and then failing to do it ever?
Why are you checking your Facebook news feed during a sales pitch, regardless of which side of the desk you are on?
What good are you doing yourself continuing to say “Let’s have lunch” when you really don’t want to have lunch and have no intention of following through with any such invitation?
If you are meeting someone for lunch—business or personal—and you are going to be more than five minutes late, would it be possible for you to call or text, then apologize when you arrive? Better yet, barring a jack-knifed semi blocking all freeway lanes for ten miles in both directions, could you possibly leave a little early and be on time?
Depending on what stage you may have attained in your career, some of this comes down to the difference between what you are looking to achieve in terms of personal impact rather than measured achievement. That’s a see-saw that should shift over time to the beneficial, but there are pragmatic aspects of a well-mannered approach that might be useful to you now. Considering again Bart’s suggestion that “nuanced conversation” is a mauled victim of abrupt interpersonal dynamics, it is possible that listening less really is bad for business?
If you understand the nature of creative destruction as I often discuss in this blog, you know that we live in a world where teamwork generally matters more than individual contribution, and true leverage in time to market is almost always achieved by collaborative intelligence rather than ramrod dictum. In that sense, where an effective creative process is a function of shared give and take, the question becomes not how well we are silencing the noise, but how well are we listening.
Later this year I will be piloting a training seminar to help guide executive coaches with a practical approach to the corporate training work they do. I mention this in the spirit of disclosure and not for promotional purposes. In designing this emerging program, I have been inspired repeatedly by my partner organization, the well-regarded Coaches Training Institute (CTI). In the book written by CTI’s founders Henry Kimsey-House and Karen Kimsey-House with contributing author Phillip Sandahl, I discovered the following simple but profound reflection:
The absence of real listening is especially prevalent at work. Under pressure to get the job done, we listen for the minimum of what we need to know so we can move on to the next fire that needs fighting. The consequence: it’s no wonder people feel like mere functions in a whirling machine, not human beings. It’s no wonder that “employee engagement” is a serious issue in most organization’s today. Everybody’s talking, nobody’s listening.
The point is entirely actionable—a renewable creative process requires focused listening, much more than combative banter. No doubt the methodology of Constructive Confrontation pioneered over the years at Intel is as relevant as ever, but it remains a framework that is fully participatory. If you aren’t nurturing the dialogue all around, you are leaving money on the table.
Invoking the world view of popular ethics advocate Michael Josephson, I could easily migrate The Argument for Being Nice into a call for Significance beyond Success, but my sense is we all learn that well enough for ourselves over time. Instead let me keep it pragmatic.
If you are playing the short game and have convinced yourself the liquidity event is just over the horizon and that’s all you care about, feel free to be as rude as you want. Why not? You’re going to get what you want.
If you’re like the rest of us and have no idea where the forest trail will lead today or ten years from tomorrow, remember that kid on the reception desk probably will be running a company. History is on her side.
If it’s Friday night and you’re home from a hard week cataloging all the different ways you were kicked in the teeth the past week, ask yourself a simple question—how much forensic dental work were you responsible for doling out of late? And how much dialogue did you shut down that may have given you the answer to that very hard problem you’re still trying to solve on your own with the bomb clock tic-tic-ticking?
I’ll go out on a limb here, a little old-fashioned digerati, but what the heck—good manners are good business, and both of those will make you happier. Go easy on the texts and eradicate the gossip. Listen, there are good ideas all around you.